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Lucy and Paul Hull are the husband and wife owners of the quaint Geordie gift store, For The Love Of The North, based in Whitley Bay, Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Lucy talks sleepless nights, collaboration and community.

Home to eclectic high-quality North East gifts curated and made by local artists – For The Love Of The North has cemented itself in the local community and beyond. Lucy Hull explains how her passion for supporting North East creatives got them through tough times, and why they are looking towards a brighter future…

Our research is showing that small businesses across the North East and the Humber are feeling much more positive about the future. Would you agree?

Our initial reaction to lockdown was panic and I think there were sleepless nights and lots of tears because we thought we would lose the whole business – that was before they announced the furlough scheme and any of the grants. But as lockdown became the norm, I’m not sure we relate to feeling flat because we produced these ‘Love will get us through’ prints, which helped us raise £10,000 for our local Northumbria NHS Trust, and that meant we were incredibly busy wrapping and packing orders. The support of the local community was unreal and totally unexpected because we didn't realise we had so much support in the community. In terms of going forward, that support is still very much there – people want to support local, they are making a conscious decision to shop small.

What – for you – are the main factors that are making you feel more positive?  

We’ve always been banging the ‘Shop local’ drum but before the pandemic, it felt like something just we were doing but once Covid happened, it felt like the whole community was doing it – the whole of Whitley Bay was rallying behind the same thing. The ‘Shop local’ message was being amplified by all local businesses in the area and it made such a difference when the whole community got behind us.

We work with North East creatives and thank goodness we had the website, that meant we could go across the whole of the North East and further afield, so it felt like our community grew wider and spread out in little ripples. It was good!

What changed for you as a business during the long months of lockdown?  

We were used to getting three or four orders a week to then suddenly getting 150 orders a day, it was big! Pre-pandemic we would package each order with a handwritten thank you note and a tourist tip, so now we have those printed for more efficiency. We did produce some special things throughout the pandemic, such as lovely rainbow prints with pictures of the North East, and they did really well – it made us realise we are able to react quickly. For example, one of our customers got in touch during the first week of lockdown asked us to do something like the iconic ‘Keep calm and carry on’ poster, as he wanted to support us by buying 50. I got in touch with one of our artists to ask if they could pull something together on Whitley Bay, the Spanish City (where our shop is) along with a rainbow – at this point I had no idea how much of a symbol the rainbow was going to be – and then we decided to donate 25% to our local NHS Trust. We had it done within a week, so it proved we could be reactive even if it was exhausting.

How did your customer base change?

In Whitley Bay we have a loyal customer base – with the NHS prints we made, every street in Whitley Bay had them up so that automatically widened our reach. But then we did a print for Durham, and we had people ordering from Durham and Sunderland who hadn’t heard of us before, so it had a real ripple effect. People loved buying something local, from a local business and being able to show solidarity with the NHS knowing that a percentage of the sale was going to our local trust. Since we’ve opened again, we’ve got visitors coming to Whitley Bay who have sought us out because they know about us – they wouldn’t have done that before. I think it will have a long-lasting positive effect for us.

Do you think those changes will stick?

We used work with artists, we used to buy things in, and we used to resell them. During lockdown, we've done a lot more collaborations like we did with artist Lisa on the NHS print, and we collaborated with four or five other artists to do their own versions of the print. Since then, we’ve done more collaborations that will take us to Christmas, and we have produced our own tea towels. We are producing a lot more For The Love Of The North own brand products partly because we enjoy the collaboration and partly because it increases our profit margins as it has made us look at the bottom line more closely. It also means we have more exclusive products and that customers aren’t seeing elsewhere. There is something to be said of adversity and finding solutions quicker!

Do you feel that you became more agile or more resilient?

Yes, one hundred per cent. It has made our brand stronger and more recognisable. It’s helped us hone what we want to do, the types of collaborations we want to work on, and helped us take control over the production of lots of products. Something that has been important to us is the sustainability and environmental impact of what we do and owning the production of our collaborations means we can source 100% organic cotton, Fairtrade tea towels. That is massively positive and important to us. We want to take our customers on this journey with us, and it’s working. For example, we had a Christmas jumper designed by one of our artists that was printed with vegan ink, it was expensive, and we were really hesitant about doing something like that but we did it as a limited edition and it sold out within two and a half hours. The customer feedback we got was so positive because we made a jumper that was against throw-away culture. We wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that prior to the pandemic, and that’s how much of a journey we’ve been on as a business.

Were you operating online before the pandemic and how did that change? 

We had a website before and it ticked over, but not everything was on it. There was a massive gap between what we sold in the shop and what we sold online, and there are still pictures of Paul online holding up prints that we took really quickly because we needed to get product on the website. Prior to that, we were doing nice photoshoots and getting everything perfect, but we had to do things more quickly.

Our website is still not as community based as we’d like it to be, it still feels like a selling platform. If you look at what we put out on social media, I think there’s community there. We set up a Facebook group during the pandemic and we had a book group on Zoom so we could invite authors like Ann Cleeves and LJ Ross. Before the pandemic, we had workshops and secret gigs in the shop, so we had to work out how to bring that community online, it wasn’t easy but the book group worked well and it felt good to help our customers who were feeling lonely. 

Looking ahead, do you think the bricks and mortar and the online aspects of your business are equally important?  

At the start of the pandemic we had two shops, one in Corbridge and one in Spanish City. We’ve got rid of the one in Corbridge and kept the shop in Spanish City. We did this for a few reasons, first because Paul and I live within walking distance of Spanish City and we don’t drive which would have meant getting public transport to Corbridge in the pandemic, which would have meant an empty shop. Having said that we love having just one shop so we can really focus on it, but also because the reach of the website has increased so much we can put in more time into the website and into product. We’re now buying from Yorkshire to sell online as we wouldn’t sell Yorkshire products in the Spanish City shop, but they’re going to sell online. They’re not separate businesses but they feel separate.

What do you think you need to do to make your business as resilient as possible in the future? 

We’ve streamlined so much; we’ve paid off all debt and we’ve saved so we have money to pay the rent if we need to pay the rent. We never thought we’d need to do that as we were almost a hand to mouth business and when the pandemic hit, I couldn’t sleep and I never ever want to feel like that again. I’m sure my accountant would say we need to be investing in more stock but I need to sleep at night. It has absolutely changed every single thing about the business.

How has the customer experience changed for you in the last 12 months?

Because of the screens in the shop and the masks, I don’t think we’re giving the customer experience we were pre-pandemic. Our customers understand but it still doesn’t feel as warm to me as it did, but there’s nothing we can do about that right now. We’re personally not ready to do workshops yet so we’re happy to leave that until next Easter and holding a gig in the shop with 50 people feels really far off, yet these were the things that were really part of the customer experience we were creating. So, we’re not there yet, but there are things like the book group that have worked really well online.

Looking forward, what are going to be your biggest challenges and why? 

Honestly, I think the possibility of another lockdown is concerning because it impacts how far in advance we are planning. It’s about us having confidence that we’re staying open because if we’re having a Christmas where we’re posting out orders, I can’t buy bone china – so that is still a huge challenge that we don’t know the answer to. Paul and I have both made our peace with it but it’s not great. We didn’t make as much in December as we could have because we were open but we didn’t have the correct levels of stock.

What are going to be the biggest points in your favour?!

I am absolutely confident that For The Love Of The North will survive the pandemic and that the collaborations will go from strength to strength. We do a limited edition with a different artist each month, and the idea was to get money to the artists during all this, but it’s proved really popular so stuff like that is going to continue. We are better at managing the business than we were before – it wasn’t a learning curve; it was a learning vertical! The business is a better, leaner business than it was in March 2020 but it has been a hell of a journey to get to that point.

What key things have you taken from all of this?

Community is everything – without the community you have nothing as they will really support you when the chips are down. But it’s two ways. You need to support the community too, it’s as much about giving back as it is relying on the community.

It’s been interesting times and I’d happily never live through interesting times again but at the end of it we have a better business model, For The Love Of The North has further reach and more people know about us and I am utterly exhausted. I feel like we are running on empty now, but things seem to be getting back to normal, the shop is open and we can finally breathe.